Elderberry Cordial

There was a year several years ago when I was feeling the fear, maybe a little too intensely :), about bird flu and swine flu and any old terrible bug that could make us all unwell. And especially regarding my son, who can have a dangerous asthma-type reaction when he is struck by infectious respiratory illnesses. Convinced by what I read on how well elderberries stimulate the immune system, I was buying Sambucol (TM),  the elderberry medicine that tastes so good, sweet with glucose– and a little expensive given that elderberries grow so profusely where I live.

A DIY version, if you are able to find an Elder tree in autumn, is cheap and easy– and dried berries, from mail-order if necessary, would not be so expensive either.  Last year, I steeped some dried berries in brandy, and that has become a wonderful night-cap of hot, flu-fighting power. But I wanted something to give my children, a sweet, purple, medicinal spoonful, maybe similar to cordial and Calpol, for which they beg even when perfectly healthy!  (I don’t give them that Calpol unless really serious, just need to say!)

So I found a recipe online, one that was good enough but not perfect. There are actually so very many, and in the Permaculture spirit of “pattern before detail” I will give a kind of summary, and encourage anyone who wants a precise recipe just to do an online search– you’ll certainly find one you like.

–Freshly foraged elderberries, stripped from their stalks as well as possible
–Maybe a few cloves or pinch of clove powder, cinnamon, fresh or dried ginger, some say lemon, I think grated orange peel would be nice — however you wish
–Maybe for every cup of berries, an eighth to a quarter a cup of liquid– I used a light, home-made vinegar and some apple juice, but didn’t need to– could have used water.  You could use very little liquid if you wanted a less fluid, more syrupy texture.
–Maybe for every cup of berries, a half cup of honey or of sugar.

Simmer the berries with the spices, push through a sieve with a wooden spoon and a little elbow grease,  boil your pureed treasure with the sugar or honey, then put in sterilised bottles.   That’s your medicine for the winter, or a cordial, to dilute in any concentration you prefer.

The more sugar, I guess the longer lasting?  I get trapped in puzzling conundrums when I preserve anything but jam or chutney.   I always like to reduce the sugar I use, but it is an effective preserver.   But things taste too sweet to me when I use the prescribed amount.  I am sure many readers find the same– please if you can , comment on how you resolve this in your life.   Some people just preserve berries– very clean, perfect ones– in honey, but others worry about botulism in situations of no oxygen and low acidity (which sugar gives); this is where I get confused and would welcome insight or conversation.   Also, it’s a reason why with vegetables for savoury preserves I most enjoy lacto-fermentation, because the sour means acidity and those baddie spores just don’t thrive.

I have a Danish friend who every year made an elderberry cordial– she freezes hers until use.  (And serves the cordial in hot water, as a kind of rejuvenating fruit tea.)  Freezing is good but it’s a relatively energy intensive solution, and I always prefer to go lower carbon if possible.  (Though maybe boiling the heck out of jars and bottles and berries uses more than just making than using a spot in an already temperature-controlled freezer.)  Other people keep their bottles in the fridge– but we don’t have the fridge space really.  To preserve it to keep outside refrigeration, one needs extra sugar and  extra boiling — thus reducing the vitamin content. Seems like in so many cases there’s no perfect solution.

Writes the ever-wonderful Alys Fowler here :  “The volume of honey must be greater than the volume of liquid if you want the syrup to remain preserved (if you wish to use less, freeze the syrup). The safest bet is to store the syrup in the fridge: it should last the winter” :  http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/sep/28/alys-fowler-elderberries

I shall sing “A Spoonful of Sugar” to help the medicine go down, and hope to jolly my children through any winter travails…